Billed as “two decades in the life of a notorious terrorist,” Olivier Assayas’s Carlos is five and a half hours of border-hopping, bombings, botched attacks, a brutal but bungled hijacking, and many, many short scenes in which bearded men and beautiful, impassive women sit in small rooms and strategize how best to advance the Palestinian cause and defeat the imperialist capitalist world order. In retrospect, it’s a bit of a blur, and you might opt to see Assayas’s condensed version (alternating in some theaters), which clocks in at a trim two and a half hours. I say go for the whole shebang. Shot by shot, scene by scene, it’s a fluid and enthralling piece of work. I wasn’t bored for a millisecond.
As Carlos “the Jackal,” born Ilich (after Lenin) Ramírez Sánchez in Venezuela, Édgar Ramírez gives a strange but magnetic performance, disarmingly deliberate for a terrorist who exulted in his own celebrity. Ramírez shows us a man so certain of his course that he doesn’t need to emote. Early on, he tells a movement leader that his weapons are an extension of his body and admires his naked self in a mirror. Later, he’ll gain weight and find a growth on his testicle and have liposuction for his love handles—but by then he’ll be a liability to the movement, a casualty of his notoriety, a man without a country.
Both in flashy globe-trotting thrillers like Demonlover and in melancholy meditations on impermanence like Summer Hours, Assayas returns to this theme: the unbearable lightness of internationalism. Speaking many languages, moving from Germany to France to Hungary to Yemen to Syria, Carlos ends up homeless and friendless. The government that protects him today will try to assassinate him tomorrow. He’s paralyzed long before he’s imprisoned. Assayas has become such a graceful filmmaker that you don’t actually see Carlos’s world shrinking. You just realize, all of a sudden, that all the doors are closed and the boarding gates barred.